This week saw the first round of semifinals, where competitors Nana K. Adjei-Brenyah (Cardigan Blues) and Terri Favro (Cold Comfort) got the chance to re-write their stories – a first in Deathmatch history.
The alterations inspired a far more heated round of Deathmatch comments, and raised some serious and contentious issues. No songs or jokey remarks will be found in this recap, but we will try and summarize the debates that were raised with some excerpts.
The new versions of the stories sparked more criticism this time around. Commenter Jerome wondered whether Favro had simply incorporated elements from other Deathmatch stories in her new version – vegetables, drug use, etc, and another commenter wondered whether the new version of “Cold Comfort” lost a bit of character explanation. Adjei-Brenyah pointed out that the re-write was much more vivid than the previous version, and Favro explained that her goal was to keep people reading. She also clarified some plot points in the story as well as the use of the larger psychological “third man” phenomenon experienced by mountaineers and explorers. Essentially, the character Courtney is an imaginary friend, adopted by the drug-addled Mommie. Very interesting discussion and it certainly helped clarify aspects of the story for us. As in previous rounds, Favro continued to defend and participate vigorously in the round, despite being in transit for a large part of it.
Adjei-Brenyah’s revised story was praised for adding deeper substance by commenter Emily. However, it also stirred up a more troubling debate about whether the assault at the book could actually be construed as rape – Favro felt the scene was vague in its execution, offensive to the reader and shied away from being graphic enough in order to tell the reader what was happening. In response, Adjei-Brenyah explains:
“What happens in the bathroom is written out. They touch her and harass her but before anymore can happen one of them gets sick and forces the situation to stop before it can escalate. That is what is written. Things only seem vague if you try to fill in what did not happen. Everything that happened is there in the narrative.”
“…Have you ever done something you shouldn’t have within the passion of the mob mentality? Immediate regret usually follows once the act is done. It makes sense for someone to realize right after the act that they had made a mistake. I don’t see how that is offensive, it shows that they have realized they are truly horrible.”
This was followed by a discussion of whether violence is more effective when its left to the imagination of the reader. Favro responds:
“….The reason I said it was borderline offensive is that you are asking the reader to accept a sense of suden empathy among the boys for the girl (and therefore feel empathy for them) just seconds after sexually assaulting her. This is an extremely violent act regardless of how far they took it. I feel no empathy for them. They are torturers, in the process of the act. It doesn’t wash. It’s the violence you don’t communicate yet it is at the heart of what they are doing. It shies away from the truth of it.”
Should the scene have been more descriptive? A few other commenters thought so, and one mentioned that the lack of description was actually a sign of “immature writing.”
Previous contender Emily Kendy mentioned that the story is simply about the struggle for individuality within a high school framework, and doesn’t require more nit-picking than that.
A commenter named workswithsurvivors left a long comment on February 20. They explained that they work with rape survivors on a professional/academic basis and found Adjei-Brenyah’s story – and the fact that it was pulling ahead- extremely troubling. An excerpt:
“I think that we need to show this round of voting around to women’s shelter workers and other people who work hard every day to fight this violent power. I’ve poured over NKA-B’s story, and so have other people who I work with, and we’ve found that it is a very basic retelling of justifications of rape. The boys leave with only good stories (You know how drunk I was? So drunk I puked *high fives*) and Heffer is able to punch one of her rapists in the nose with no reprisal (WTF!?!?) and leave generally unscathed, and the narrator assures us all that the boys will be fine. There is no indication that Heffer won’t be living a disrupted life, or that all the girls in the school aren’t just plain used to this treatment by now.”
This led to some discussion as to whether the characters actually experience any sort of remorse. The character who has the strongest physical reaction, Logan, vomits during the assault scene and ends up throwing away his cardigan (the uniform for this gang of high school boys), and Adjei-Brenyah points out that he does this because he’s disgusted with the situation, and that Harriet actually emerges from the story as the strongest character who will rise from the situation. Others felt it appeared that Logan was vomiting because he was drunk. Workswithsurvivors replies:
“I think that the conflict between your interpretation of the boys’ reaction and some of us readers is taht your narrator actually explains to us what the boys feel and why they react the way they do. The narrator unfortunately prevents us from going there.”
And in regards to Harriet:
“Harriett does two things that are unbelievable to most survivors of rape but are easily explained from a POV of somebody who isn’t thinking about the sensations of anatomy and emotional response to this kind of trauma. Harriett is able to think in a linear way, maybe something like, “I feel angry. I will show them how angry I am. I will punch one of them. I will leave.” But there is no description of her hesitating to be angry when there are other feelings complicating it (shame or fear or exhaustion).”
This is a powerful comment and deserves to be read in its entirety here.
Votes leapt up in large bursts during this round, leading some commenters wondering (whether somewhat jokingly, like Favro, or seriously, like commenter Jennifer) about the possibility of cheating, and whether the voting system is truly a valid way of determining the better story (which has been part of the Deathmatch debate since its inception.) Adjei-Brenyah insisted he’s not a “techie” and doesn’t have time to rig votes.
Favro: I’m starting to think of Deathmatch as a giant piece of public performance art based on who can raise the largest online standing army. It’s almost medieval.I’m waiting for one of the Borgias to show up with a crack troop of literary critics.
Adjei-Brenyah: People who assume something funny must be going on because they’re losing…We have a word for that when I come from. And it’s not winner and it’s not realistic.
This has been a good and thought-provoking round, where both competitors were put to task to explain aspects of their stories and divulge some backstory as to how the edits were made, what their intentions were and why the stories were written in the first place. Good job to all. The round continues over the weekend, and we encourage you to join in the debate.